Personal History, the debut album from Irish indie-rocker Ailbhe Reddy, starts in a rough place. Its opening track, “Failing,” sees Reddy in a cynical light. “I’m trying my best to make this make sense, but I’m failing,” she sings in the chorus. But over the course of the record’s 10 tracks, it eventually arrives at a hopeful outlook in its closer, “Self Improvement.” In some ways, it’s an indirect reflection of the album artwork, which Reddy illustrated herself. It represents the creativity that can spawn from manifold sources, including something as mundane as a dull party or something as life-changing as a tumultuous breakup.
Many of the song’s titles (“Self Improvement,” “Personal History”) and lyrics stem from Reddy’s degree in psychotherapy, which she acquired before the songwriting for Personal History began. She didn’t notice it at the time, but co-producer Erland Cooper observed the connection between her knowledge of psychotherapy and her music. “All of these different things I was talking about fed into that world, so it made sense,” Reddy explains. “It just summed it up because it’s a debut album, so what is it if it’s not a personal history of sorts?”
I talked to the Dublin-based songwriter over Zoom to discuss Personal History, her support slot for shows with Big Thief next year, the inspirations behind the record, and what she’s conveying through the album artwork. You can purchase Personal History from Bandcamp here, which releases Oct. 2.
It’s weird because I haven’t had any releases in two years, and the last time I did it, it was so based around touring. Now, all the touring we had planned for this year has been pulled. It’s weird because I’ve released three singles from it so far, and it’s really hard to tell how it’s landing because you’re not playing any shows. You’re not meeting people and seeing what they think of it.
Exactly. It’s really cool during a campaign to see what songs are picking up steam and as things go along. But with this, it feels very insular and odd. It’s all online. Everything’s online. I was supposed to have a gig on Friday night in Dublin that was socially distanced, but Dublin’s gone back into lockdown.
Yeah, I’ve been keeping an eye because I was meant to be moving to London properly. I’ve been living back and forth between there and Dublin for the last few years, and I was meant to be moving there this summer. But obviously that’s on hold. I’ve been watching very carefully what they’re doing. The Irish rules are a lot more conservative than the U.K. ones. It’s quite conservative. At the moment, you can only have 15 people maximum dining outdoors in Dublin. We’re getting into winter, so I hope it becomes less.
I have a lot of friends who live in New York, and they’ve had an entirely different experience. Theirs has been really back-and-forth. It seems like New York is doing quite well now.
We were hoping to go do just a few shows they were doing in Ireland. It wasn’t really set in stone yet, but I was meant to be going to the States with Paul Weller. I’m meant to be there right now. I was meant to be doing 19 dates with him. That was the big touring plan for this year.
I’m very eager to play some shows. I’ve never done a tour in America before, so I was ridiculously excited for that. I was meant to be doing SXSW, as well, and that was pushed to next year, and now next year is going to be online, so it seems relentless. I’m hoping that even if we can get some tours going around Europe next year, that would be great.
I did a psychotherapy degree before I started releasing music, and that influenced my writing. I didn’t realize it had, but when I went into the studio with Tommy McLaughlin and Erland Cooper, who co-produced the album, Erland was saying, “That really feeds into your work. A lot of the lyrics have phrases that you’d use in psychology like ego, true intimacy, personal history, self-improvement, etc.” All of these different things I was talking about fed into that world, so it made sense.
The title track is called “Personal History,” as well. That song is about dating in your 20s, meeting these people and getting to know them really well and moving on and getting sick of that. Every new person that you meet and get to know them and their history and relationship style. You get to know this person really intimately and then you move on. It was a frustration for that. But I also realized there are no albums called that, and I really liked that title. It just worked out perfectly. I was like, “Surely someone else has this title,” and no one did. It just summed it up because it’s a debut album, so what is it if it’s not a personal history of sorts?
I was listening to a lot of Fiona Apple. I was listening to a lot of Big Thief. I suppose all of the stuff that I listened to growing up came to the fore. My mom is really into music. She’s not a musician; she just has really good taste and quite eclectic taste. She listened to everything from Queen to John Denver to Don McLean to Jeff Buckley and was always keeping up with contemporary music. I was the youngest of four kids, so I was often in the back of the car for hours listening to everybody else’s music tastes, so my older sister’s music taste and my mom’s music taste is really what informed me. Even though my music isn’t exactly folk anymore, it’s very much still informed by that lyrically. I still go back and listen to “Annie’s Song” by John Denver, and it gets me.
For non-music inspirations, I suppose just everything. You can be inspired to write a song because of something that you saw, or a conversation with a friend, or a massive breakup. What’s interesting about songs is that it can be this completely mundane event that can start you off to have an idea, or it can be a huge, life-changing event like a breakup or loss of somebody. It’s a release for any single thing that you can experience.
I’m in the middle of writing my second album at the moment to record in November, and a few of the songs are about being at a bad party. Everyone’s been at a party and been like, “Why am I here?” You can write a song about any of those really small experiences. You can also write about really big experiences like self-realization. The last song on my album is about realizing that and my struggle with things, but that doesn’t mean I’m failing. That’s a huge realization to have. The title track is about realizing that if you’re bored, you’re quite content. Upper-intimate relationships are very calm.
Sometimes, even small things, you’ve gone about your business, and some small, tiny thing can set you off into a really bad mood or set you off thinking about things in a really serious way. That can happen. You can be at a party, and you can be miserable to be there because of loads of things that happened last week or this week. But it’s the party that you’re at and the question that one person asks that you find annoying is what sets you off. I’m inspired by little and big things around me.
I think I’m doing a more mature sound, and I’m going to be properly co-producing this one myself. It will probably be a fuller sound. Some of it will be recorded in my apartment. Most of it will be recorded in rural Ireland, a studio in the middle of nowhere. It will be more confident I think. I was very nervous going in to record that album, and there were parts of it where I was very unsure of my ability to bring it to fruition. This time, I know exactly what I want out of it. I’m really looking forward to going in and sinking my teeth into it. Recording is my favorite thing.
I was definitely very invested in it the whole time. We ran through a lot of production ideas, and it was the three of us most of the time, recording the whole album together over two weeks. So it was the three of us bouncing ideas around in the room, which was a really nice experience. We ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner together, so it was really nice. I’ll probably just be working a bit more in the in-between, less fun parts if I’m co-producing. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to hone those skills in lockdown.
Just keep trucking forward. It’s all you can do is keep writing and releasing stuff, especially at the moment. There’s no sign of a proper tour on the horizon, so why not? I’m releasing Personal History now, but that was a long time coming. Recording albums is super expensive, and it’s really hard to pull all the right people together. That’s something I was super conscious of doing, working with the right people and recording in the right place and also having enough financial backing to do it. But this time, I have all of those things in place because I’ve spent time figuring them out. I have all of the songs because I recorded Personal History last summer, so these are all songs that I’ve written since then, so I feel quite ready to go with it. Why wait?
It goes back to what I was saying with psychotherapy and personal history. It’s like medical history and personal history, and those are the two things they would describe as your background, being like, “Grant is allergic to penicillin” or whatever. Part of it is almost like an anatomical drawing of someone’s head mashed with an actual photograph of my head. And then flowers coming out of it to show creation and blossoming and all of the ideas that can come out of something quite clinical. With the inside sleeve, the inspiration for it was mostly antique, botanical texts and encyclopedias I was going through. That was the kind of vibe I was going for. A lot of times, those illustrations in encyclopedias are handwritten with little dots in the middle. It’s like if you opened up an old book. On the inside of the album sleeve, I’ve done all the lyrics like they’re a dictionary.